The Garden of Knowledge

Once, the Information Society was the fashionable topic. Now, every computer and business magazine is filled with articles on E-commerce, with dire warnings of commercial ruin for those who do not heed the message and follow the new electronic way.

In fact, E-commerce is only the precursor of the much wider and more far-reaching revolution of the knowledge era, for which most businesses are completely unprepared. The convergence of vast information resources, pervasive networking and graphical user tools brought about by the Internet is set to create a self-accelerating transition to a completely new form of commerce, the knowledge-based economy, with big winners, big losers and effects that will reach out from the business world into our ordinary lives. The consequences for businesses will go far beyond the currently fashionable Business Process Re-engineering (BPR); the consequences for society are only just beginning to be understood.

The trends of the knowledge era are comprehensive digitalisaton, increasing velocity of competition, globalisation, deregulation, exponential growth of data, communications and networks and the domination of knowledge based services and software everywhere. The key element is that most fundamental aspect of human social interaction: language.

The abolition of time and space in the financial services market is already here and successful. Internet trading of other services and physical products has begun and is set for explosive growth. Interactive network systems offer businesses revolutionary opportunities to provide existing services cheaper, to add value to existing services, to generate incremental value and to acquire new customers. It provides vendors with the advantages of disintermediation, lower capital costs, broader geographic reach and enhanced targeting, leading to greater customer tendency to buy. But it also provides the customer with unprecedented power to seek and enforce competition; the competitors are just a click away. The need to grab customers' attention and retain their business will become paramount. The trend towards staggering and absorbing multi-media experiences will dominate the rush for electronic customers. The speed and "force-multiplier" effect of the technologies will create huge gaps between the knowledge era market leaders and the rest, further intensifying the marketing need to get in first and hit hardest.

In information terms, E-commerce also blurs the distinction between suppliers and customers. It will provide all business at no additional cost with the same information as that derived now only from expensive store loyalty card schemes. In doing so, the customer also becomes a supplier of valuable information. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) has become the new marketing buzzword. Customers have to be wooed and pampered, both for their business and for their information. For the vendors, this also works in reverse and Supplier Relationship Management and Value Chain Management are now being propounded, further blurring the boundaries of the company.

All this is revolutionary enough but it is only the tip, the easy tip, of the knowledge era. Easy because it is really just numbers and labels. But it does provide a clue as to the way of the future. The change in relationship between suppliers and customers will not be confined to product and services sales; it will affect the internal activities of enterprises and be reflected in more fundamental human activities and social behaviour.

At work, the networked organisation of the knowledge era needs new structures. Management must change from being an information and instruction giver to become an enabler and facilitator. Fixed categorisation of positions will be replaced by more unconventional behaviour; future management will not be a hierarchy but a network. New organisational models, such as virtual teams, project co-ordination teams and spin-off teams, break the traditional management hierarchies and control. Structures will disappear, as processes follow people. Are today's managers ready for such changes and the challenges they will bring?

Constant learning, coaching and competence development at work will have to be promoted; work and learning will be inseparable. Machines and information may belong to the company but brainwork is linked to the individual and is portable. There will be a global battle for the best brains and Human Resources policy will shift from the old "hire and fire" approach typical in manual industry to "hire and retain", mirroring the "grab and retain" of CRM.

Even areas that management currently regard as theirs alone, such as preparing and implementing strategies, will change. The pace of market change and the trend to shorter product development cycles will mean company strategies being constantly reviewed and updated as necessary. Fixed-term strategies with clear implementation goals and deadlines will be replaced by constantly changing scenarios, shaped by the knowledge growth of the company, both generated internally by staff and gained externally from customers, suppliers, partners and competitors.

Knowledge metabolism is the new term used to describe the process of knowledge generation, representation and application, a constantly developing loop that will be at the heart of the enterprises of the knowledge era. Understanding the nature, creation and use of knowledge will be the key to the efficient management of the organisation. Business numbers and labels are easy, dealing with existing non-numeric information is harder and the real challenges are capturing the organisation's processes and tacit knowledge to produce an extra-mental representation of knowledge. The knowledge repository will become its most valuable intellectual asset and the Chief Knowledge Officer will become one of the most important jobs in the companies of the future knowledge era. Most companies are in only the very early stages of this process - even in the best companies, knowledge efficiency barely exceeds 25-30% - and most managers have little idea of the great changes that lie ahead.

Teaching will also change fundamentally. The conventional classroom is answer-based, bounded by syllabus and defined by method. Now, with PCs and the Internet, students seek answers themselves. Learning shifts to being about content and skills. But, with a never-ending proliferation of content, skills acquisition becomes the new challenge of learning. High quality information and high quality questions, facilitated by the use of user-oriented tools, together will lead to knowledge, both at school and at work. The ability to ask the right questions will be the most important skill; how can that best be taught?

For students, question-based learning will be information rich, tool intensive and collaborative because the search for meaning creates the need for inter-personal interaction.
For teachers, their role will change from being the gatekeeper of knowledge to being a guide, giving direction and instilling a sense of mission and purpose in their students. This mirrors the future roles of management and staff in knowledge-based companies. Both teachers and management are unprepared for these changes and must change together or be left behind.

Knowledge is never-ending; it is constantly changing and evolving. As Isaac Newton said, "What we know is a drop, what we don't know is an ocean". The traditional view of knowledge is that it is a reflection of what we have absorbed. Modern thinking also recognises that knowledge is dynamic process; knowledge is actively acquired and this has important consequences for the design of Man-Machine Interfaces (MMI) and interactive usage. If knowledge is created by interaction and interaction is facilitated by graphical tools, then it is obvious that the shift from the textual interface to the graphical interface is fundamental to the future knowledge era.

Workplaces are more than just workstations and networks. Engineers integrate objects and processes but don't relate people and practices. Human centred computing starts with a scientific study of the people and the machines but recognises that a design for learning is a design for conversation and takes a total system perspective.

The old Human Factors approach to requirements engineering concentrates on tasks, procedures, schedules, automation, interfaces, skills and training. The Human-Centred computing approach concentrates instead on practices, rhythm, emergent structures, identities and constituencies, taking into account the informal and interactive aspects of the whole process and emphasising the potential for learning and feedback.

Examining how order naturally emerges in human activity reveals previously hidden structures. A community scale evaluation takes into account how people interact, how their work place is organised and how their personal goals shape or constrain their activities within that community. Four basic human needs must come together to create a community: interest, relationship, transaction and fantasy.

A key factor of success for a net community will be to give members the tools they need to use their new power. Flexible, customisable tools will be needed that take these "soft" factors into account and recognise that the interaction - mutual adaptation - between technology, people and their environment cannot readily be anticipated and so must not be fixed in tools.

Information anxiety is the most pressing problem to be addressed; far too much information but not enough meaning or relevance. Typically, 30% of staff time now is wasted looking for the right information. Tools to contextualise information, to make one's own collection and to add one's own annotations allow the users to seek the information in the ways that suit them best. Beyond that, the emphasis will shift from search "pull" technologies to selective "push" technologies such as rule based matching and neural nets, with the increasing sophistication of the technology allowing greater degrees of personalisation.

Because of the importance of interaction, new graphical user tools will be needed that improve efficiency and reduce complexity by shifting the load on the brain from cognition to perception by using shape and colour, not only for identification but also for showing weighted relevance graphically. So called "wide widgets" remove the cognitive load of "deep", layered tools, in which users have to remember where they are and work out which way to go, by using techniques such as displaying the entire structure, but with some areas having more space or prominence and others less, with the means for controlling the focus. Spotlighting elements shows the results in the context of the whole instead of as isolated results. Interaction in a rich context makes it easier to remember and also provides see and go principles that accelerate the interaction.

Society was accelerated by the advent of the printed books and it will be accelerated again by instant availability to digital multi-media. The pre-literate era was characterised by epic poetry; literacy brought philosophy and rhetoric. What will be the new cultural form to arise from the digital media of the knowledge era?

In the pre-literate world knowledge was derived from experience and observation of analogies and the perception was of unclear boundaries between the self and a world in which everything was magically connected to everything else. In the literate society, writing introduced representation and the internalisation of consciousness, leading to the invention of the “self”, and produced fiction and theatre with time and space under control. In the pervasively networked knowledge era society everything could, literally, be connected to everything else. What new philosophical perceptions will we need then to make sense of our new world?

We are still in the dark ages of the knowledge era. The technical design of knowledge systems today is like building before architecture; locally adopted with no science of use. So-called Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems have often been cited as examples of knowledge systems, but their knowledge is frozen and does not grow by interaction with the environment. It is just isolated symbol processing and the role of symbolic intelligence may be considerably less than previously thought; language may be the real key to cognitive capacity in machines.

Some authorities postulate that knowledge may become the next battleground in the process of evolution. Whether that is true or not, machines that could truly understand language and have the ability to interact with their environment raise the next fundamental question: could a machine that has such abilities become a member of a social community and acquire its own cognitive capacity? The truth is that we don't yet know what the knowledge capabilities and social consequences of such machines will be. We will have to wait and see what evolves. Knowledge management may actually turn out to be more like gardening than engineering.

(Originally written March 1999, updated March 2003)